Twelve years after he left Lefty Driesell waiting at the altar, Moses Malone -- the greatest player to never play for the University of Maryland -- is back on the Beltway. At 31 years old, and with three MVP awards, 12 professional seasons in the ABA and NBA and 1,000 pro games behind him, Malone is the Moses the Washington Bullets are praying will lead them out of this desert.

There are things we know about Moses, and they are, like the man himself, terse and to the point: He is the greatest offensive rebounder ever. He is among the five greatest centers the NBA has ever seen. He is, by any sporting definition, a superstar.

And there is one thing we do not know about him: How much does he have left?

That's the gamble.

Look at the trade the Bullets made with Philadelphia piece by piece: In a swap of starting forwards, do you trade Cliff Robinson for Terry Catledge? The Bullets say they like Catledge because he's aggressive, and last year they lacked aggressive. They also like him because he had the game of his career against them, scoring 27 points in Game 5 of their playoff last April. Robinson had his best all-around season ever, averaging 18.7 points and 8.7 rebounds and leading the Bullets in steals. Now he's moving on again, his fifth team since 1981. If you can't reach him by phone, leave a message at United Van Lines.

With the 21st pick in the draft, the Bullets chose Anthony Jones. They wanted Buck Johnson of Alabama. They were dead certain they had Buck Johnson until Houston, picking just ahead of them, chose Buck Johnson. In announcing Jones, Bob Ferry said, "He has a chance to be a backup guard to Jeff Malone. He's an athlete. He jumps. He shoots. He's local -- that doesn't hurt." Without criticizing Jones, the Bullets would seem to need a point guard more than a shooting guard. As Kevin Loughery said of the Bullets' point guard situation: "Gus Williams is unsigned. Frank Johnson is injured and unsigned. That's a situation that needs to be shored up." Perhaps even sometime before next season.

The Bullets also get a No. 1 draft pick in 1988, the one they gave up for Tom Sewell, who took a little piece of all our hearts with him when he left town. You never know who will be left when the Bullets use that pick in 1988, but with Charles Barkley still playing for the 76ers it doesn't figure to be much higher than 23rd.

Now for the 2.2-million dollar question: Assuming they are both healthy -- Ruland missed 97 games the last two seasons with shoulder, ankle and knee problems; Moses missed the recent playoffs with a broken eye socket that he says is still healing -- do you trade the 27-year-old Jeff Ruland even up for the 31-year-old Moses Malone?

You do.

"You have to take Moses Malone if he's available," said Loughery, and he's right.

You do because Moses has won championships and Ruland has not.

You do because as good as Ruland is, Moses is still better.

You do because however many years Moses gives you, for as long as he's on your team, your team will be respected and feared.

You do for marquee value, because Moses sells tickets and you must sell tickets.

You do it for all these reasons. But you don't do it for the long term. You do it for now, the way George Allen used to do it. And you do it with your eyes open, because if Jeff Ruland has a few seasons in Philly where he averages 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists -- years he is very capable of having -- and Moses gets real old real soon, you are going to have a lot of people to answer to. Moses may be only 31, and centers often play until they're 34 and 35. But Moses is an old 31. He's been banging in the paint since 1974. He couldn't jump much then, he hardly jumps at all now. He doesn't pass. He doesn't dribble. He gets the ball, he takes it to the rack, and they punch his ticket. When he finally quits he won't walk away from the game, they'll carry him.

For the third Draft Day in a row the Bullets have made a bold, decisive move -- bringing in a veteran player like Moses, like Dan Roundfield, like Gus Williams, reloading, not rebuilding -- to try to keep from getting drowned in the toughest division in the NBA. This year the Bullets had to contend with Philadelphia, Boston and New York having picks among the top five. The No. 12 pick, even with the Bullets getting exactly who they wanted in John Williams, didn't figure to be enough by itself to help the Bullets move up. They were almost to the point of desperation. "You can't sit back and surrender," Ferry said. "You have to fight. We're committed to win. We can't sit back and wait for coin flips." He took a puff on his big cigar, looked through the smoke and said with much relief, "This gives us a chance."

With Moses and Catledge the Bullets will rebound better and play tougher underneath. Without Ruland and Robinson they won't pass as well and they won't pass as often. The Bullets are in love with John Williams because he can play three positions: lead guard, small forward and power forward. And that's good, because that's all they need.

Three seasons ago the Bullets had a starting team of Jeff Ruland, Rick Mahorn, Greg Ballard, Frank Johnson and Ricky Sobers. Four of them are gone, the fifth is usually in bandages. Once again this is a radically different team. Once again we will see The New Bullets. The Beef Brothers are gone. The Thunder and Lightning is gone. But, as always, there are The New Bullets. "It takes time for players to learn to play together," Ferry cautioned.

How much time they need is the first half of the question. The other half is how much time they have.